cyrus and caesar

The monastic impulse has historically been to fuga mundi–flee the world and leave all the wranglings of politics and economics behind. But we are Christians first; my missal has a quotation from the Catechism for today’s liturgy that states that it’s the “duty of citizens to contribute along with civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom.”

5th century B.C.E. glazed brick frieze depicting a griffin, from the Palace of Darius I at Susa, Iran.

This man Cyrus who we heard about in the first reading today (Is 45:1, 4-6) is a fascinating figure in the history of the Middle East. He was the king of a small kingdom named Anzan, but first he started gathering clans together and established the Persian nation. Then he conquered the Medes and won a war against the Lydians to become the master of all of Asia Minor. But his crowning victory was when he marched against Nabonidus, the King of Babylon, establishing at that point the Persian Empire, that included modern day Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, all the way to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the largest empire the world had ever seen. Of course through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord God takes credit for all that: ‘I go before you, I arm you, though you did not know me.’

Cyrus’ name comes up not only in Deutero-Isaiah, but also in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah and the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. (Serendipitously, we are about to launch into a series of readings at Vigils from all those same books.) The reason he plays such a prominent role in Old Testament history, besides his geographical proximity to the Holy Land, was that he is the one who proclaimed the edict that ended the deportation of the Jews to Babylon––the Babylonian Captivity, and even promoted the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed, as well as the return of all their sacred articles and vessels. He was known as a wise and benevolent ruler who practiced what today we would call “religious liberty,” allowing conquered peoples to practice their own religion, even promoting and encouraging them. His Persian name was actually Koresh, which means, “shepherd.” The Persian name Koresh becomes “Cyrus,” but he is still referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures as a shepherd. Not only that: the Bible also calls him “messiah” and “anointed”––in Greek christos. In some way I suppose you could see him as a Christ figure. The Church does; the very next verse in this reading from the Prophet Isaiah, referring to Cyrus, is Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may spring up…, which you might recognize as the text for the traditional Advent chant, the Rorate Coeli. (We sing it as “Let the clouds rain down he just one…”) The chant we sing about the coming of the Lord was originally written for Cyrus the Persian!*

What is interesting of course is the juxtaposition today of Cyrus to Caesar in this reading from the Gospel of Matthew.[i] On the one hand, in Isaiah we see God’s plan working through Cyrus, a pagan foreigner being called the shepherd and the anointed––the christos! On the other hand you see Jesus in a sense not too taken by the demands of the state: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s; give to God what is God’s.’ But maybe in the back of Jesus’ mind is Psalm 23: The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness, the world and all its peoples. In other words, what doesn’t ultimately belong to God? It reminds me of Jesus answer to Pilate, too: ‘You would have no power over me whatever unless it were given to you from above.’[ii]

The last line of the reading from Isaiah is‘I am the Lord, there is no other.’ Our hope is based on that. We believe that God is the sovereign master of all history. Our hope is based on the fact that, as a friend of mine likes to quote, all will be well in the end, and if things aren’t well, then it’s not the end. Our Christian hope is based on our belief that history has a purpose and a telos–an end, and that purpose and that ultimate end is the Reign of God. Period. Gaudium et Spes teaches that “The same God is both Creator and savior, the Lord of human history as well as the history of salvation.”[iii]

I think we could safely say that human history has never known such an accelerated rate of change as we are experiencing today. Already 40 years ago we were talking about “Future Shock.” (What would Alvin Toffler say now?!) When our prior general spoke about this at our General Chapter in Italy, he was asking himself out loud if the Church guided by the teaching of Vatican II was still an adequate response to our modern age. His answer was Si/ma––Yes/but… Yes, “… but I don’t know for how long,” he said, because “history is accelerating and the processes are getting more and more complicated. [The Church] must continue and elaborate” her teaching.

On the day after the election last year, while everyone was in a state of shock, it happened that we were celebrating the Feast of the Lateran Cathedral, the cathedral of Rome, in honor of the basilica which is called mater et caput––‘the mother and mistress of all churches of Rome and the world.’ That day I was reminded how back in 1961, in response to Pope John XXIII’s just-published encyclical Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher), an American magazine published a famous issue headlined “Mater si, Magistra no”–“Mother, yes; Teacher, no!” That was because in that encyclical Pope John had placed the Church clearly on the side of policies and reforms that favored the poor and supported government involvement in issues like unemployment and workers’ rights, and this magazine was not happy about it. It’s something like that that makes me feel confident that we can and ought to fall back on the authority of Pope Francis and our own bishops in regards to Catholic social teaching, and regard the Church as both our mother and our teacher, and let the Church show us the proper relationship to civil authority, obedient and prophetic at the same time, both yeast in the dough and light for the world.

That day (again, the morning after the election), we heard a long reading from the 1st Letter of Peter (1 Pt 2:1-3, 13-17), a beautiful teaching about our proper stance as Christians toward government rulers. First of all, it says, Rid yourselves of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Then…

… accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. … Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.**

What do we Christians, Christian monks, bring to the conversation in civil society? Among other things, we bring hope, based on the fact that we believe that God is the sovereign master of all history; that “the same God is both Creator and savior, the Lord of human history as well as the history of salvation.”[iv] Our hope is based on the belief that the “present is inhabited by God,” and based on a hope for “the tomorrow of God.” I’m going to end with some words from our General Chapter, from which I got those two phrases. This is from the introductory notes of our Deliberations (Delibere).

The voice of the prophets invites us to embrace, with realism, the present inhabited by God, and to inhabit it together with God, like a womb that carries in itself the fertility of a future formed by the surprising creativity of the Spirit; to persevere on the boundaries of the present day and to hope; to open our eyes and ears to the mysterious voice that announces un-hoped for newness. … The vital energy of the Spirit assumes continuously new forms in its development throughout history. The today of God always has a tomorrow. The energy of the Spirit must be welcomed with humility and courage, aware that the vital sap can only flow through people, traditions, institutions, which are always relative and limited and yet at the same time unavoidable, because the vital breath makes itself flesh in history, in people, in communities.***

Let’s pray that we may experience the present inhabited by God, and pray that we may inhabit it with God, as we wait, in joyful hope––with and sometimes in spite of all the Cyruses and Caesars, the Obamas and Clintons, the Bushes and Trumps––for the coming of our savior, our christos, and the tomorrow of God.

cyprian 22 oct 17


I had so many other things I wanted to add into this homily, I could have talked for an hour. Here’s what I left out…

* The other interesting context: this reading we heard is from the section of the Book of Isaiah called the “Book of Consolation of Israel,” Deutero-Isaiah. This book was very influential on the New Testament; as a matter of fact after the psalms it is the most cited text in the New Testament. I’ve heard it referred to as “the favorite book of Jesus and his disciples” and we get the sense that it contains much of the seed of Jesus’ own theology, the gospel of Jesus, Jesus’ own gospel––a message of comfort and hope.

** I found this below to be comforting and good practical advice, from a teacher and educator, when he was asked, “What should I say to my students in the face of all the hatred and division in our country right now?” Tell them, first, he said, that we will protect them. Tell them that we have democratic processes in the US that make it impossible for mean people to do too much damage. Tell them, secondly, that you will honor the outcome of all legitimate elections and elected officials, but that we will fight injustice, bigotry and hatred of all kinds. Tell them you stand by your Muslim friends, your gay friends, black families, your female co-workers, immigrants, and tell them that you won’t let anyone hurt them. Then teach them how to speak up, how to love one another, how to understand each other, how to solve conflicts, how to live with diverse and sometimes conflicting ideologies, and give them the skills to enter a world that doesn’t know how to do this. Teach them how to be responsible members of a civic society. Teach them how to engage in discussion—not for the sake of winning, but for the sake of understanding and being understood. Teach them how to check facts, to weigh news sources, to question assumptions, to see their own biases, to take feedback, to challenge one another. Teach them how to disagree—with love and respect. Finally, remind them―to ease their minds―that not everyone who votes differently from you does so because they believe the worst of the other party, whatever side of the aisle you are on.

*** This quote from Roshi Joan Halifax could have suited just as well: “There’s a potential for a new kind of enlightenment in our time… I don’t feel hopeless or futile… We have tremendous potential to realize in these coming decades… We’re in an era of great breakdown, environmentally, socially and psychologically. And when systems break down, the ones who have the resilience to actually repair themselves move to a higher order of organization. This is characterized by something the complexity theorists call ‘robustness.’ We can anticipate both a time of great robustness, which we’re in, with tremendous potential to wake up and take responsibility, and at the same time we’re in a lot of difficulties and we need resilience to make our way through this change.”

[i] Mt 22:15-21.

[ii] Jn 19:11.

[iii] GS, 41.2

[iv] GS, 41.2.

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